L.A. law

Plastic grocery bags get the death penalty.

By Tom Weir

If you belong to the Baby Boom generation or the one before it, you know first-hand that retail purchases did not always leave the store in plastic bags. The world got along fine without them, just as human beings survived for millennia without carrying a telephone in their pocket or purse.

The Los Angeles City Council recently voted (13-1) to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, at least as far as plastic bags are concerned. If the timetable holds, large stores will have to stop providing plastic bags in late winter or early spring of 2013 and smaller stores six months later. The law, aimed at curbing litter and pollution by encouraging customers to bring reusable bags when they go shopping, also requires the 7,500 affected stores to charge 10 cents for each paper bag they provide.

While L.A., with nearly four million residents, is the biggest city in the country to prohibit plastic bags, the number of California municipalities that ban or restrict their use is approaching 50, and every county in Hawaii has adopted similar legislation that will be phased in completely in 2015. A few other places around the country either have some type of ban on plastic bags or are discussing them.

Bag manufacturers and retailers have protested, but there is a real possibility that sooner or later multi-state operators will have some stores that will not be allowed to pack groceries in plastic bags. These things do not happen overnight and barring federal action they likely will never happen in some states. However, now is a good time to start thinking about the possibilities.

Objections to plastic bags are becoming more widespread. Whole Foods stopped providing them four years ago and many people feel the convenience is not worth the blight on the landscape or the damage to waterways. Recycling is more theory than practice. Environmentalists say people in California use about 12 billion plastic bags every year and recycle less than 5% of them.

None of us like to have our comfortable routines disturbed, but a ban on plastic bags would not create anything close to a crisis. Human beings are adaptable. Change is inconvenient and then it becomes the norm. As long as the rules apply equally to all retailers that sell groceries, no one should be at a relative disadvantage.

Supermarkets that are not allowed to give away plastic bags and have to charge for paper ones may pick up some revenue from reusable bag sales, although overpricing them could send a negative message to shoppers. The bottom line is groceries, not bags.

What could be the most interesting angle is whether retailers realize such long-term cost savings on the bags they no longer have to buy that they will look for ways to encourage customers in states without bag bans to switch to reusables. A number of chains already knock off a penny or two for each bag a customer brings in, so this is not a novel concept.

We are unlikely ever to see grocers and their trade groups pushing for bag bans. That could turn off customers who consider them an inconvenience. But if the savings are big enough, the industry may be sitting on the sidelines silently cheering for the environmentalists.

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